E.g., 06/17/2024
E.g., 06/17/2024
Pushback to the Resistance: Criminalization of Humanitarian Actors Aiding Migrants Rises

Pushback to the Resistance: Criminalization of Humanitarian Actors Aiding Migrants Rises

Sign left by No More Deaths activists in Arizona

No More Deaths sign in southern Arizona. (Photo: Benketaro/Flickr)

As industrialized countries—in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere—are adopting harder-edge immigration and asylum policies to deal with real and perceived crises, humanitarian actors have sought to blunt the effects of those policies by launching rescue missions at sea, rendering direct aid to migrants in need, and offering legal assistance. A concerted pushback to this resistance emerged in 2018, perhaps most visibly in Hungary, which passed a law making it illegal for individuals or organizations to render aid to irregular migrants and asylum seekers.

Issue No. 5 of Top Ten of 2018

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From efforts to block NGO rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean, to the “Briançon 7” being convicted in December for helping a group of migrants cross into France amid a border blockade by far-right activists, and the prosecution of eight No More Deaths activists in Arizona, the year brought visible signs of the use of political and legal systems to crack down on humanitarian actors.

Save the Aquarius sign at a rally in Paris. (Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet)

No Harbor

Even as the number of attempted boat crossings was down in 2018, well off the 2015 peak, the Mediterranean became an increasingly deadly place for asylum seekers and other migrants. NGO ships that had sailed the waters to rescue migrants in distress from badly overcrowded or capsizing vessels faced all manner of governmental opposition that kept them from operating.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a right-wing immigration hardliner, earlier this year closed his country’s ports to the MS Aquarius as it sought to disembark 629 migrants, and later extended the decision to all NGO boats, accusing them of facilitating trafficking. The Italian and Maltese governments also used other tactics to stall the NGO ships, including challenging their flagging and accusing the Aquarius of dumping toxic waste. Amid the opposition, the Aquarius ended its patrols in the Mediterranean in December.

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary. (Photo: Elekes Andor)

The “Stop Soros” Law

Amid Hungary’s turn to “illiberal democracy” under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, immigration played a significant role during 2018 elections that saw Orban’s party, Fidesz, both demonize immigrants and Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The “Stop Soros” law, named for the philanthropist with whom Orban once had friendly ties but now accuses of facilitating Muslim immigration into Europe, makes it a crime for organizations or individuals to help migrants, who view Hungary at best as a way station towards preferred destinations in western and northern Europe. Those convicted under the law can face a year in prison and fines.

The Open Society Foundations, founded by Soros, is taking Hungary to court over the Stop Soros law. And the European Union, in a showdown with the government of the increasingly euroskeptic Orban, has referred the country to the European Court of Justice over hardline asylum provisions. (See  Issue #7: Asylum Hangover? Governments Seek to Narrow Avenues for Humanitarian Protection)

A volunteer leaves water jugs for migrants in the desert near Ajo, Arizona. (Photo: Ash Ponders/Unitarian Universalist Service Committee)

Going After Individual Volunteers

France and Arizona were among the places where prosecutors in 2018 charged individuals who had volunteered to help migrants cross difficult terrain: the Alps in the case of the Briançon 7 and the Arizona desert in the case of the eight No More Deaths activists. As an earlier case shows, however, sympathy can often turn to the activists. A French olive farmer in 2017 became a local hero for helping migrants cross the difficult mountain terrain that straddles the French-Italian border. Convicted for assisting migrants to commit unlawful entry into France,  Cedric Herrou recently saw the conviction overturned on grounds that he exercised one of the French republic’s core tenets, “fraternity,” by aiding migrants without receiving money in return.

Similar arrests occurred in Greece and elsewhere, and in Italy, a migrant-friendly mayor was banished from his town for his actions.

With politicians and publics ever more engaged on all sides of the immigration debate, it remains to be seen if the actions taken by Hungary and others will serve as a template or a caution, if they are ultimately struck down by the courts.


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